Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Norms about Nonmarital Pregnancy and Willingness to Provide Resources to Unwed Parents

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Norms about Nonmarital Pregnancy and Willingness to Provide Resources to Unwed Parents

Article excerpt

Contested social norms underlie public concern about adults' and teenagers' nonmarital pregnancy. The original, vignette-based National Pregnancy Norms Survey (N = 812) measures these norms and related sanctions. Descriptive analyses report embarrassment at the prospect of a nonmarital pregnancy by age and gender of hypothetical prospective parents and age, race or ethnicity, and socioeconomic status of respondents. Multivariate analyses show that embarrassment about nonmarital pregnancy is frequently weak but much stronger when prospective parents are teenagers. Embarrassment predicts respondents' hypothetical sanctions of a new parent in their family by withholding several types of needed material resources. Because research has shown that such resources affect education and income, this study helps explain how violating norms might lead to negative outcomes among unmarried parents.

Key Words: adolescent pregnancy, life course theory, multi-generational relations, nonmarital parenting, survey research, transition to parenthood.

American families have been undergoing major demographic changes in recent decades. One important trend is the increasingly prevalent decoupling of childbirth from marriage. The proportion of all births that are nonmarital has been climbing since the late 1990s, and nearly 4 in 10 babies were bom to an unmarried mother in 2005 (Hamilton, Martin, & Ventura, 2006). Among teenage mothers, whose numbers had been decreasing until very recently (Hamilton, Martin, & Ventura, 2007), 8 in 10 births are out of wedlock (Sawhill, 2001). Despite the visibility of teenage childbearing as a social issue, most nonmarital births are to adult women, and births to adult mothers are driving the increase in nonmarital childbearing.

Most of the research on pregnancy and childbearing among teenagers and unmarried adults focuses on these demographic trends or on their causes and consequences. Instead of examining the behaviors themselves, this study focuses on the prescriptive, or normative, dimension of nonmarital pregnancy. Social norms are regularly invoked to explain individuals' motivations for childbearing and other life events. Life course theorists once thought that a fairly rigid timetable of age expectations prescribes at what ages and in which order (e.g., before vs. after marriage) it is appropriate to experience a wide range of life transitions (Neugarten, Moore, & Lowe, 1965). Mounting evidence suggests that the life course is becoming individualized, with increasing variability in the ordering of transitions to adulthood, such as the ordering of marriage and childbearing (Rindfuss, Swicegood, & Rosenfeld, 1987; Settersten, 2004; Shanahan, 2000). Does this mean that people are declining to follow an existing prescriptive timetable for life transitions, or is there no longer a normative timetable? Alternatively, do different subpopulations of Americans now have different normative timetables?

Social scientists addressing mis question with regards to nonmarital childbearing have found differences across sociodemographic groups of Americans. Recent polling data (Taylor, Funk, & Clark, 2007) and ethnographic research (Edin & Kefalas, 2005) have suggested that attitudes and norms about nonmarital and teenage pregnancy may vary by age, socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity, and religious attendance. For example, most younger Americans find nonmarital childbearing to be morally acceptable, but most of those from older generations consider it wrong (Taylor et al., 2007). Edin and Kefalas found that social norms among their low-income interviewees have decoupled childbearing from marriage. Cherlin, Cross-Barnet, Burton, & Garrett-Peters (2007) supported this assertion using surveys of low-income mothers in three cities, finding that 82% of women disagreed that "having a child without being married is embarrassing for a woman."

Social norms about adults' nonmarital pregnancy thus appear to vary for different groups of Americans, but norms against teenage nonmarital pregnancy may be stronger and more unified. …

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